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Surveying the Arizona Diamondbacks landscape, post-Greinke

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What will the team look like, both for the rest of this season, and on into 2020 and beyond?

Grand Canyon National Park Celebrates Centennial Photo by George Rose/Getty Images

Well, you asked for starting pitching. And Mike Hazen duly delivered, with two deals for starters to join Arizona, sliding just under the wire on trade deadline day. Of course, there was also the one which sent a shockwave through baseball, as the most expensive player in franchise history, Zack Greinke, was dealt to Houston for prospects. That was a stunning move. For we’d heard throughout the period leading up to the deadline, how difficult it would be to move Greinke, both due to his salary, and the no-trade clause, giving him the right of veto on any trade to more than half the teams in the league. Yet in the end, the D-backs are paying only about a quarter of his wages, and got back a decent haul.

Zac Gallen

The day started with the trade of Jazz Chisholm, one of our top position player prospects, to the Miami Marlins for starting pitcher Zac Gallen. The move significantly strengthens Arizona’s pitching depth, but the question is, who will be bumped from the rotation in order to make way for Gallen? Obviously, Robbie Ray and other new arrival, Mike Leake (whom we’ll get to later) aren’t going anywhere. And despite his recent struggles, Merrill Kelly’s spot is probably safe for now. That largely gives us two of three from Gallen, Taylor Clarke and Alex Young, with the loser being optioned back to the minor leagues. Below, you’ll find the major- and minor-league stats for each of the three pitchers.

Clarke vs. Gallen vs. Young

Year Age ERA IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
Year Age ERA IP H R ER HR BB SO ERA+ FIP WHIP H9 HR9 BB9 SO9 SO/W
Clarke 26 5.53 57 63 38 35 13 21 45 81 5.98 1.474 9.9 2.1 3.3 7.1 2.14
3.62 507 465 220 204 46 146 435 1.205 8.3 0.8 2.6 7.7 2.98
Gallen 23 2.72 36.1 25 12 11 3 18 43 154 3.58 1.183 6.2 0.7 4.5 10.7 2.39
2.87 382 341 139 122 35 100 384 1.154 8.0 0.8 2.4 9.0 3.84
Young 25 2.51 28.2 17 8 8 4 7 20 179 4.48 0.837 5.3 1.3 2.2 6.3 2.86
4.34 448 462 241 216 44 161 375 1.391 9.3 0.9 3.2 7.5 2.33

It’s an interesting set of comparisons. Clarke seems the most likely loser based on major-league performance so far. having failed to come anywhere near his minor-league numbers. In particular, he has been bitten by the long-ball, his fly-ball tendencies so far, not having worked out very well. Conversely Alex Young has pitched much better than in the minors, but it’s probably not sustainable, with a fielding-independent ERA (FIP) close to two runs higher than his figure so far. Gallen has also outperformed his FIP, but to a much lesser degree (a 0.86 gap), and his minor-league numbers are also stronger across the board. He struck out a batter per inning on the farm, for example.

I’d expect that Gallen will most likely replace Taylor Clarke in the rotation, effective immediately. While Clarke has been considerably improved over the past couple of starts, neither his major-league results, nor his track record in the minor leagues has been as good as Gallen, even though the latter pitcher is more than two years younger. However, it’s still quite possible we may end up needing Clarke again, at some point over the final third of the season. It’s nice to have a little bit of depth again: if we’d lost any of the pre-deadline rotation. I really don’t know who would have ended up starting for Arizona. [Not-so fun fact: seventeen different pitchers have started games for the Reno Aces this year already]

Mike Leake

This is not the first time that Leake’s name has been connected to the D-backs. Or, indeed to Arizona in general, having gone to ASU and having local family connections. When Leake was a free agent after the 2016 season, he gave serious consideration to signing here, for less money than the Cardinals eventually offered. In particular, Leake wanted to be closer to his dad, who was paralyzed in a construction accident in 2013, and lives in the area. Even after the D-backs signed Greinke and traded for Shelby Miller, discussions continued. but in the end fell through. He said, “It got close. It just never came to fruition. I felt like there were some that wanted it and some that didn’t in the organization.”

What the D-backs are getting is a veteran “innings eater”. In the 2010’s, he’s in the top ten for sheer number of starts, having made 286, and since the start of 2016, he is tied for 7th with 114. Curiously, that’s exactly the same number as Greinke, the man he is basically replacing. Obviously, the level of performance is considerably lower: over that time, Greinke’s ERA+ has been 131, while Leake’s is 96. But Mike is still capable of having his day. Just last month, he took a perfect game into the ninth inning for the Mariners against the Angels. This season, he has been more than serviceable, going 9-8 for a not very good Seattle club, with an ERA+ of 102.

There is cause for concern, with his FIP steadily climbing over the last few seasons. In 2016, it was 3.83, but since then has ticked up to 3.90, 4.14 and, this year, 4.73. This year, he leads the major leagues in hits allowed, with 153 in 137 innings of work. However, this has been countered by an American League-best walk-rate, with Leake having issued only nineteen walks all year. That degree of pinpoint control will likely need to be maintained for him to be effective, especially if he continues to allow home-runs at a hefty rate. Leake has already given up 26, trailing only Justin Verlander in the majors this season. Perhaps the humidor at Chase will help him keep the ball in the park.

2020 and beyond

These moves also alter the landscape in the longer term, with Gallen in particular being under team control for five years after this season. By next spring, Luke Weaver should also be available, and hopefully Taijuan Walker will also have completed his recovery from Tommy John surgery. Though, of course, that’s never a given. But it does mean that there are potentially a dozen starting pitchers, with varying amounts of experience at the major-league level, from whom the team will be able to choose next season. And outside of Ray and Walker, everyone else is under some degree of team control for more than next year. The chart below shows what we’re looking at, roughly power-ranking the 2020 candidates:

D-backs starting pitching 2020-2024

Name 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024
Name 2020 2021 2022 2023 2024
Robbie Ray Arb
Luke Weaver Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb
Mike Leake $15M $18M MO, $5M BO
Zac Gallen Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb
Merrill Kelly $3M $4.25M TO, $500k BO $5.25M TO
Taijuan Walker Arb
Jon Duplantier Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb
Alex Young Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb
Taylor Clarke Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb
Zack Godley Arb Arb Arb
Matt Koch Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb
Braden Shipley Pre-Arb Pre-Arb Arb Arb Arb

[TO = team option, MO = mutual option, BO = buy-out]

The above chart doesn’t mention any players without major-league experience, who may come up through the farm system. That would include the likes of Taylor Widener and new guy J.B. Bukauskas, on down through the levels. Obviously, as we go forward, we should expect to see more names coming up from the ranks and into contention, though it’s basically impossible to make specific predictions of who, when or what they will become. The middle and back of the rotation looks solid enough for the foreseeable future. The big question to me seems to be, where will Arizona’s next staff ace come from? Answering that will be a huge factor in determining a future window of contention for the D-backs.

Payroll

This may be the biggest “win” for the team, even though Arizona will still be paying Houston for Greinke to appear for them. The amount in question, $8 million per year, is relatively small beer compared to the $53 million total which the Astros are taking on. The team will also only pay $6 million for Leake, through the end of next year, again, relatively little compared to what’s actually left on his contract [Next year, looks like Leake is going to be paid by three different teams: us, the Mariners and the Cardinals who originally signed him, and agreed to pay a portion as part of his trade to Seattle. I wonder how that works. Does he get three different checks every month?]

If we presume the figures above for Greinke and Leake in 2020, this is a rough idea of what we’re looking at for payroll, between commitments and likely arbitration. [I’m sure Jack will be along with an updated spreadsheet in due course!]

  • Yasmany Tomas: $17m
  • David Peralta: Arb-3 ($9m)
  • Robbie Ray: Arb-3 ($8.5m)
  • Zack Greinke: $8m
  • Eduardo Escobar: $7.17m
  • Mike Leake: $6m
  • Wilmer Flores: $6m (team option)
  • Jake Lamb: Arb-3 ($6m)
  • Taijuan Walker: Arb-3 ($5.5m)
  • Nick Ahmed: Arb-3 ($5m)
  • Steven Souza: Arb-3 ($4.5m)
  • Ketel Marta: $4.4m
  • Merrill Kelly: $3m
  • Andrew Chafin: Arb-3 ($3m)
  • Archie Bradley: Arb-2 ($3m)
  • Zack Godley: Arb-1 ($2m)
  • Matt Andriese: Arb-2 ($1.2m)
  • Blake Swihart: Arb-1 ($1.2m)

With a caveat that all the arbitration estimates involve waving a moist finger in the air, the total there comes to just over $100 million, for 17 players plus Tomas. Fill out the rest of the 25-man roster with pre-arbitration players including Luke Weaver, Christian Walker and Carson Kelly, and it seems the Diamondbacks are looking at about $105 million in total for 2020. Baseball Prospectus gives Arizona a payroll this year of $123.4 million, so it appears the money saved (not just on Greinke, but on departing free agents like Alex Avila, Jarrod Dyson, Greg Holland and Adam Jones, who will earn $15 million or so this season), will more than cover the costs for a high number of arbitration cases.

It would appear to give them a bit of wiggle room with regard to signing some free-agents this winter, or perhaps locking up some of the arbitration candidates. Robbie Ray and Nick Ahmed would be top of my list, though both fall into the category of “nice to have” rather than being indispensable. All told though, the Diamondbacks appear to be in a better long-term place today, than they were before the deadline. Personally, I’m going to continue to trust in Mike Hazen. He seems to have managed what many franchises consider impossible: making the future brighter, without making the present suck.